At Large

Iranian Mysteries

Mahmoud and the mullahs put student protests to good use.

By 10.15.07

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At first they came in scores, but soon their numbers grew to about 200. The chants grew louder as the Iranian students pressed against the locked perimeter fence of Tehran University. Upon returning home after his much ballyhooed New York appearance at Columbia University, President Ahmadinejad was to give a speech to a selected audience at Iran's premiere university last week. The barred students loudly shouted "dictator, dictator" and demanded to ask him questions as had been done at Columbia.

Seemingly by magic another group of young demonstrators of about the same number showed up and a melee broke out between the pro- and anti-Ahmadinejad forces. Finally, the riot police no longer could contain the shouting, cursing, punching conflict and they unleashed tear gas to disperse the battling mob. Both sides in the conflict went home battered, sniffling, and happy. The anti's had made their point and the pro's showed exactly what they thought of them.

The demonstration was well covered by the international press, which had received early notice of the intent to hold the demonstration. Western media were quick to point out the anti-government display as a sign that the reform movement was still alive and well. Veteran observers of the Iranian scene, however, were a bit less than enthusiastic.

One Iranian academic, speaking anonymously, noted cynically that he believed Ahmadinejad clever enough to have gained from the display by showing how the government was willing to clamp down swiftly on even small elements of dissidence. A European commentator went so far as to say it was not impossible that the reformist students were lured into action to teach them a lesson.

Whatever the true story behind the fracas, there is no denying that the Iranian public is currently under considerable stress. With inflation reportedly reaching 20 percent annually, prices of food and consumer products have risen drastically. The volatile area of gasoline prices and availability that produced serious rioting in June has been tamped down by continuing government subsidies, even though a prevalent fear of new Western sanctions keeps both the government and public in a state of perpetual worry.

The reality is that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad benefits considerably by waving the threat of American "imperial designs" to cover every shortcoming in his administration. So far he has been amazingly successful in maintaining the support of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in spite of the ex-president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani's barely disguised desires to return to his old position. Ahmadinejad is following aggressively the intentions of Ayatollah Khamenei to whose office the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (Pasdaran) is responsible along with the rest of the nation's intelligence and security apparat.

As confrontational as President Ahmadinejad is with the United States over Iran's nuclear program, he is nonetheless pursuing a path clearly approved by the powerful clerical leadership that ultimately controls Iran. So far he has been the very convenient "bad cop" who has done the dirty work of standing up to the "Great Satan."

In March 2008 the next parliamentary (majlis) elections will be held. The key to the intent of the Supreme Leader -- and perhaps the future of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad -- will be the actions of the Council of Guardians who decide on the Islamic eligibility of all candidates. This clerically dominated body not-so-subtly controls the political character of the body of candidates running for legislative office.

If centrist and reformist backers of Rafsanjani and Mohammed Khatami, respectively, can field a full slate of candidates acceptable to the Council, that will be a sign to the voters of a positive message being sent that the Council and Ayatollah Khamenei want a change in parliament. This holds the message also that they will not be against a change in the presidency in 2009. It may be a mite convoluted, but that's the Persian way.

Of course, if the centrist/reformist slate is cut down by the Council, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his confrontational policies will have received clear approval from on high, and the door will be open for every device to be used to ensure his continuation in office. This includes ballot manipulation, if necessary, but with spiritual sanctification that's no problem.

It is by scrupulous adherence to the Shia version of the principle of taqiyah that Ahmadinejad has been able to be successful. A simple definition of taqiyah would be: the concealing or disguising in times of danger one's true views and strategies. In other words, dissemble, dissimulate or just plain lie if you perceive the world around you to be dangerous. With that known, how can anyone trust what is said by an Iranian political figure? It is Ahmadinejad's ability to lie to the world and his own people so effectively that makes him powerful. That's hardly a mystery.

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About the Author
George H. Wittman writes a weekly column on international affairs for The American Spectator online. He was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.